The Festival du Chameau brings vibrant music, hundreds of nomads and Michael Kessler to the middle of nowhere.
We're not in Timbuktu but it sure feels like it. It's been a five-hour flight from Paris to Mali's Mopti Airport, then we're confined to a battered four-wheel-drive for what turns out to be two arse-thumping days and nights over 600 Saharan kilometres. In the middle of the rugged Malian desert on the mountain border of Algeria, hunched up in the back of our dusty truck, I wonder: "Will we ever, ever get there?"
A week ago, when the doctor was jabbing me with yellow fever, polio and hepatitis shots and supplying malaria tablets, I'd tried imagining what a camel festival would look like. The Festival du Chameau is the brainchild of Tinariwen, the international darlings of world music - a group of Touareg nomadic musicians, purveyors of the desert blues, whose political past combined with their hypnotic electric guitars make them local heroes in this, the Adrar des Iforas region of Mali.
I've been told the festival will be a gathering of Touareg nomads from all over the country who have followed in Tinariwen's footsteps and formed bands. Apparently there'll be camel races, music, parades and, yes, plenty of electric guitar.
During the night we speed past dimly lit roadside villages, occasionally stopping for treacly tea or a chat with the internal border police. We arrive in the wee hours at Gao, a parched mud-brick city some 300 kilometres north-east of Mopti. The hotels are closed, so we kip the night in sleeping bags inside a mud hut on the property of our guide's distant relatives.
Four hours later, breakfast is instant coffee, bread and cream cheese followed by four rounds of tea. We thank our hosts, stock up on supplies of rice and petrol, and weave our way through the town's rues - past the Orange mobile phone signs, past the street beer vendors, past the World Massage bar, past the kids playing in mounds of rubbish, and head north to the Sahara desert through plains of grass and umbrella trees.
Soon the soil becomes parched, the trees disappear, the road disappears and the desert is one dry grey moonscape peppered with black stones. Eerie and spectacular, breathtaking, but the location for a festival? In the deep black of the night, the stones give way to big-dipper sand dunes, across which our driver rides blind. I'm hoping he's done this before, as my head hits the roof again.
Three hundred kilometres later, we roll into a nomadic campsite in the border town of Tessalit. The town and its surrounds were once a tourist haven; safari trips in the region were popular and the Touareg nomads are fascinating hosts - noble, hospitable and in constant struggle with the government to establish their claim to the natural resources of the Adrar des Iforas. Incursions by Algerian rebels about 15 years ago ended the safari-led tourism here, and daylight reveals the decadence that's written all over Tessalit - abandoned shops, empty pensiones and barely a visitor in sight.
The festival site is a different story. Another 20 kilometres north of Tessalit we've hit different terrain altogether. We're surrounded by huge black rocks and red-brown cliffs. We wind around the hills, climbing higher and higher. Suddenly, for the first time in two days, we're not alone. Traffic! Three jeeps. The odd camel. We must be close!
And finally we're here, at the foot of the mountains nestled under towering charcoal boulders, on a grassy patch of land that is, well, in the middle of nowhere. Timbuktu has become a metaphor for "middle of nowhere" but while it is now a shadow of the glorious trading outpost it once was, it still has some exotic mosques and bustling markets. The middle of nowhere I find myself in now has no such marks of civilisation.
The sun is blazing as we pull up next to Tent No. 1, belonging to Tinariwen. Players come and go. Here, on their home territory, they know everyone. Slowly their extended family arrives - Touaregs on camelback sporting fake Ray-Bans, digital cameras, mobile phones. Touareg families arrive in jeeps. Everyone has a tent. Market stalls are set up. The open kitchen is preparing the first communal meal of the festival - three slain goats sizzling over open fires. More jeeps speed in, more camels appear. By evening, the temperature has dropped to zero but the expectations are high.
We trudge 100 metres or so in ankle-deep sand, guided by the light of campfires and generator lamps, to a beautiful semicircular stage. Behind the mountains looming over us is Algeria.
Men are seated on rugs to the left; women to the right. A dance space separates them but it doesn't stay empty for long. Tinariwen's Ibrahim Ag Alhabib begins strumming his guitar and lets out his characteristic gentle mournful growl from deep inside his chest. Men and women begin dancing in lines facing one another, egged on by yodelling from the female audience behind them.
Behind us there are jeeps with men howling from the rooftops. Behind them, more men on camels. Barefoot boys wearing David Beckham T-shirts are dancing. There must be 600 of us.
This festival is a new bookend for the hugely successful Festival au Desert, held this weekend in January in Essakane, two hours' drive south-west of Timbuktu. Largely instigated by the Touaregs - principally by Tinariwen - and in its eighth year, the festival is one of the main reasons Westerners visit Mali. Long before it became popular it had attracted Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant. Johnny Depp is rumoured to be a regular visitor. Mali's musical creme de la creme is always here but in recent years the event has drawn European acts eager to join one of the last truly authentic music festivals.
Mali is like that. One of the world's poorest nations, landlocked and bordered by seven countries, plagued by a drought that has crippled 60 per cent of the country, this former French colony nonetheless remains a mecca for those itching for a Sahara safari and, more importantly, to listen to the blues. Mali has an extraordinarily rich musical heritage - the late Ali Farka Toure, Salif Keita, Mory Kante, Habib Koite and Oumou Sangare are international world-music stars in their own right.
And, of course, there's Tinariwen. Theirs is a fascinating story. Drought and political conflict in the '70s and '80s forced many Malian Touareg men to look for work in neighbouring countries such as Libya and Algeria. Ibrahim and his colleagues ended up in Colonel Gaddafi's training camps under the illusion they were being trained to create an autonomous Touareg state in the Sahara.
From their military camps, Ibrahim and his early Tinariwen compatriots recorded rebellion cassettes that were distributed to Touaregs all over Africa - Nigeria, Algeria, Libya, Mali, and Chad. Many of the band's members fought in the 1990 rebellion against the Malian government and they witnessed the 1996 burning of arms in Timbuktu, which marked a new era of relative peace between the Touaregs and the national government. Once peace was declared, the loose collective of musicians decided to dedicate themselves to the music.
Understand their nomadic blues and you better understand the vast space of the desert. "There's always that certain bite in the guitar, which complements the gentleness and provides the yin and the yang of desert life, which is bittersweet," says Andy Morgan, Tinariwen's manager. "There's the harshness of the midday sun and the softness of sunset."
After two days of Touareg desert blues, it's time for the long haul home. Tinariwen and their families return to their home town of Kidal before a year-long tour of Europe and the US. As we travel back to Gao through a sandstorm, I glimpse a Touareg family herding their goats and camels in the searing wind. I remember someone telling me that a Touareg's life is lived hand to mouth, a constant struggle to survive.
Many visitors travel in Mali by boat up the Niger River during the dry months of December to March. I'll stick to doing it overland, sore bottom and all, to the sound of the desert blues.
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